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Malaysia Ruling Coalition Meets Among Controversy - 2002-06-18

Malaysia's ruling coalition opens its annual conference Thursday with some contentious policy issues on the agenda. The United Malays National Organization (UMNO) will take up whether to change a racial program that favors Malays over ethnic Chinese and Indians.

Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has been criticizing the Malay community in news media the past few days for lagging behind ethnic Chinese and Indians, despite three decades of affirmative action for Malays in jobs, access to credit and education. Mr. Mahathir says Malays take privileges for granted, creating a crutch mentality. He now argues Malays need competition with other races. As a preliminary step, Mr. Mahathir's government is experimenting with giving non-Malays 10 percent of openings in government junior colleges to promote an inter-racial mix.

But Malay nationalists fear giving up college slots would erode their children's education. The opposition Islamic PAS party sees Mr. Mahathir's plan setting back Malays instead of propelling them to greater political power and economic status.

Malays also oppose another Mahathir program that teaches mathematics and science in English instead of the Malay. The prime minister argues command of English among Malays has been deteriorating since compulsory Malay language instruction in government schools was imposed three decades ago.

UNMO is also facing another challenge from PAS, which has been seeking to impose Islamic law in two of the 13 states in Malaysia.

Mr. Mahathir, who is a moderate Muslim, opposes the introduction of religious laws but still needs to curry favor with Muslims, who make up 60 percent of voters, before the next general election.

Political observers expect elections next year and say Mr. Mahathir is trying to regain support he lost in 1999 elections after jailing his former deputy Anwar Ibrahim.